A Moment of Truth for Anti-Corruption and Security in Guatemala

Guatemala’s post-conflict efforts to build a justice system that protects its citizens from illegal armed groups and corruption are under attack with direct threats to the security of its citizens, the region, and the United States.

Both the country’s justice authorities and its civilian police force have been targeted in what appears to be a concerted attack by those seeking to return the country to a pre-peace accord era where networks linked transnational criminal organizations, corrupt elites, and dysfunctional institutions.

In the past week, the president of Guatemala has ordered its migration authority to refuse permission for the UN Commissioner of the International Commission Against Corruption in Guatemala (CICIG) to enter the country. Commissioner Ivan Velasquez, a former Colombian Supreme Court justice, has led CICIG for the past five years and together with the attorneys general of Guatemala has managed to achieve both a 32 percent reduction in homicides and a drop in impunity for those crimes from 98 percent to 72 percent. Also, nearly half (42) of the 98 CICIG foreign lawyers, trained police investigators, and others have yet to receive new visas after the old ones expired on August 31, 2018.

The president of Guatemala also has announced his intention to not extend CICIG beyond September 2019, despite its internationally recognized success in helping to strengthen Guatemala’s Public Ministry (Department of Justice). Many have also been concerned by recent efforts on social media that were apparently designed to intimidate Guatemalan Constitutional Court justices and to remove some of their authorities with respect to anti-corruption suits.

These actions have drawn sharp criticisms from both former Guatemalan officials, bi-partisan U.S. congressional leaders, some U.S. officials, the European Union, and the United Nations. The combined investigations by CICIG and the Attorneys General of Guatemala have resulted in the successful prosecution for corruption of officials—including two former presidents, ministers, tax officials and police officials linked to drug cartels

At the same time, the Guatemalan national civil police are undergoing an institutional crisis caused by what Guatemalan civil society security experts describe as a systematic effort undertaken by the Minister of Government Enrique Degenhart to dismantle it as an independent professional force. A stunning report by the Foro de Organizaciones Sociales Especializadas en Temas de Seguridad (FOSS) published this week concludes the “decapitation” of the leadership of the police force was carried out without any technical justification and appears to have responded to “hidden forces” deep within the state.

The shredding of the police leadership over the past six months included the firing and removal of the Director of the National Police, Nery Ramos; his deputy; the subdirectors of Criminal Investigation, Operations, Anti-Narcotic Analysis and Information, Studies, Support and Logistics and Personnel; and more than 25 local police chiefs and 100 trained professional police officers. Most of these officers had been trained by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Justice and State Department programs, and according to the report, these firings and removals all occurred without any justification and in violation of the due process requirements of the national police law.

In addition, the report cited the appointment of other police officials linked to the pre-peace accord military-linked police and the promotion of more than 200 others without transparent, merit-based processes, including some without training. This represents a backward movement in the effort at professionalizing the force, and the apparent replacement by those with links to the military directly violates Guatemala’s peace accords, which called for civilian law enforcement.

Now the real question is what the United Nations, the Organization of American States (OAS), the United States, the European Union, and other international donors are prepared to do to avoid the gutting of decades-long efforts to build effective, independent, non-politicized police, prosecutors, and judges in Guatemala.

Mark L. Schneider is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He is also a former director of the Peace Corps, and former head of USAID for Latin America.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Mark L. Schneider
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Americas Program and Human Rights Initiative